April 16, 2013

Playing to Profanity: Motherf**ker With the Hat at Kitchen Theatre

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“So, what was your take-away from that?”

This question came from the friend who accompanied me to the Kitchen Theater’s opening night of The Motherf**ker with the Hat on Saturday night, with no hints at sarcasm. Though “vodka, cigarettes and blow” are among the show’s touted main characters, you don’t have to be an addict to catch the drift. You don’t have to be a substance-abuser, either — in this show, the distinction is important.

The show opens on Veronica (Karina Arroyave) crisply whipping sheets over her bed and tossing empty Heineken bottles into the trash as she rattles off crass criticisms of her mother’s boyfriend into the phone. “I’m sure Atilla the Hun had his good points too, but that doesn’t mean I want to shack up in his hut,” she mutters bitterly, then turns to snort a line. Her boyfriend Jackie (Vaneik Echeverria), our protagonist, newly-paroled, freshly sober and over-the-moon about a recently-acquired job, bursts into the apartment with roses and presents for his “Beautiful Boriqua Taino Mamacita Love Me Long Time Princess fuckin’ Beauty Queen.”

His euphoria is short-lived. While Veronica showers, he notices the eponymous hat on the kitchen table. Alas, it’s not his hat. The question, “Who is that motherfucker with the hat?” is what fuels the action for most of the first act. We meet a small set of characters including Veronica and Jackie, as well as Jackie’s platitude-injecting AA sponsor Ralph (Brandon Morris), Ralph’s bitter, hypogamous wife Victoria (Dina Ann Comolli) and Jackie’s fiercely-loyal cousin Julio (David Anzuelo). As the plot, largely-concerning that motherfucker and that motherfucker’s hat, unfolds, it takes on a telenovela-esque quality — it’s not that interesting, and the surprises aren’t that surprising. The scenes bookending intermission are quite obviously supposed to garner a “SHARP INHALE,” a presentation that makes them even more deserving of an eyeroll. But the dialogue is smart often delving into allusions to popular culture. The play benefits most from the Puerto Rican New Yorker stereotypes it employs — these characters don’t tiptoe or wade through self-conscious bullshit; they express their feelings at the top of their lungs with baseball bats.

The real draw of the show is the moral relativism between the weak-but-striving Jackie and the tough-but-Machiavellian Ralph. Jackie wavers with his sobriety, and his infidelity is confessed early on, but when he’s feeling most confident in his substantive turn-around, it’s his relationships and future happiness that he talks about. On the other hand, Ralph is, by all outward appearances, completely stable. He’s been sober 15 years and now he lends advice to Jackie on how to follow the same path. But he uses his sobriety as a tool — a way to get clear-headed enough to manipulate the people around him.

The characters struggle to say any of this out loud. Ralph tells Jackie, “People only attract who they’re ready for,” and “it takes courage to change.” It sounds nice until we realize he’s quoting a self-help book and quite obviously doesn’t mean any of it. Veronica pledges to love Jackie, but she obviously loves her addictions more — setting up a house full of temptations and cheating on him while he was in prison. The two have been off-and-on since middle school, it is revealed and infidelity has always been a problem — Jackie slept with his last sponsor; Veronica had an abortion while he was away. It’s all chalked-up to “weakness,” and they both spend a long time denying any kind of agency. Many of the deliberate conversations about morality come down to bickering about “bro code,” debts owed and kindnesses that are always expected to be paid back.

The high-point is Jackie fumbling with the words to tell Ralph that he’s got it all wrong: “Your — whaddyacallit— your world view? It ain’t mine. And the day it is, that’s the day I shoot myself in the head. I didn’t get clean to live like that.”

The script also deals with class in clever ways that nearly go unnoticed. The characters assign weight to class symbols like a “refrigerator that makes crushed ice,” a Commodores album, yoga, soy milk and, of course, the classic stalwarts of the the American-dream-let-down story — the house, the yard, the kids— that never materialize. Ralph and Victoria are financially middle class, but they are just as unstable as Veronica and Jackie. Victoria begs Jackie to sleep with her and packs her bags to leave more than once. She’s highly-educated, we discover — “I used to be a Wall Street bitch,” she declares, but then, well, “I thought I had met my soulmate.” She’s a caricature and her monologue is desperately begging for a maternal headshake and whisper of, “Ain’t that always the way?” Veronica represents the other side of the same coin — her life is basically a shit-storm, but that’s made her tough and now, she can’t let anyone in. They could be rom-com besties.

Parts are  cliché, but that’s also sort of the point — the play is directed not just at whatever assemblage of the adulterous or addicted motherfuckers might be in attendance, but at every motherfucker. As a pair of twenty-somethings was leaving the theater behind us,  one girl turned to the other and said, “I feel like I’ve just been attacked.” We all know the difference between optimism and hope, and that’s what’s on display in The Motherf**ker With the Hat. Whether you spend as much time yelling, or drinking, or cursing, or cheating or snorting coke as the characters in this play, you probably spend as much time questioning your own actions, asking, “Am I violating bro code?” “Am I using this person?” Maybe you take a minute to assess if that cigarette is an emotional crutch. Maybe you spend an hour thinking about what you love most on the three-object list of your addictions, your “soul mate” and yourself. The Motherf**ker With the Hat doesn’t succeed entirely in cutting through the crap, but at some points, the shouting does seem to turn into a comment on relationships — on all the ways that we can fall short, and all the ways that we can try to make up for it.

Original Author: Kaitlyn Tiffany